31 May 2016
Here follows Courtney Landers’s eighth part of her diary about how she and her team mates in Pembroke College BC’s W1 prepare for May Bumps on the River Cam.
W1 had some rather distracting spectators while blitzing up and down the river this week. This year’s crop of cygnets has hatched, introducing yet another challenge for coxes trying to find space for long pieces during one of the busiest periods on the river for the whole year.
The wildlife of the Cam was incredibly distracting when I started rowing as a Novice. I’m an animal person to begin with, but British wildlife is a particular delight for me. Growing up in 1990s Australia, a good portion of our pop culture was either inspired by or directly imported from Britain. As a little kid, I loved watching Postman Pat and Fireman Sam, Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks which were regularly played on TV. I also adored my Mum’s childhood copies of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series and Famous Five stories, so much so that Mum found me copies of The Wishing Chair. Sprinkled liberally into all these stories were squirrels, rabbits, badgers, blackbirds, foxes, robins, herons and the like, living peacefully on the green, rolling hills of the English countryside. So the first time I saw a (grey) squirrel, as a tourist in Hyde Park in 2009, I flipped out. My reaction to seeing a flesh-and-blood robin – of the fat, crimson-chested kind that still graces Christmas cards in a country where Christmas day is usually above 30 degrees – was unbecoming of a 20-year-old.
Thus when I started rowing, I was in wildlife heaven. Squirrels lived in the trees beside the boathouse, and there were often cows grazing on the common across from the boathouse and in the misty fields along the river. I regularly spotted herons perched on the banks, their laser-focus not disrupted in the least by passing boats, and there were swans everywhere, and all of them were white, a novelty for someone from a country where the native swans are black. Best of all, in summer the swans would produce bundles of grey fluff, and little clutches of tiny black-and-yellow ducklings appeared.
I’m still impressed by how well the wildlife co-exists with rowers and other river users. The swans seem to know to keep their cygnets out of the way and ducks for the most part avoid crossing the river in front of boats. Apart from a horse one year that bolted along the towpath during Map Bumps after being startled by the cannons, I’ve never heard of any wildlife issues aside from the gang of immature swans that mooch around the river in front of the ‘combined boat houses’, and they’re a nuisance merely because they seem to willfully get in the way.
The lack of boat-wildlife contact is most impressive because of the sheer number of boats on the river during Easter term. There will be ten divisions of boats rowing in May Bumps this year, with 17 boats entered in each division. That means there are around 170 boats competing, and thus training at least once per week, resulting in one seriously busy river. To relieve congestion the Combined University Colleges Boat Club designates one hour every weekday evening as ‘women’s hour’ and another as ‘men’s hour’, and only the top two men’s or women’s crews from each college are allowed to train during those periods. Despite that the river is still quite busy, and it’s not uncommon to have to stop in the middle of a five-minute piece, or a Fartlek session, because boats are queuing around a spinning zone. On Thursday, we tackled 8x500m sprints, our boatman Kev’s traditional way of ‘hardening up’ crews two weeks before bumps, and in order to do these we went out at 2 p.m. when the river was mostly deserted.
The other option for crews seeking to do longer pieces uninterrupted is to go ‘over the lock’. University crews, first boats and boats in the top two divisions of May Bumps are allowed to row on the river downstream of Baits Bite Lock, the downstream limit of the main ‘rowing’ portion of the Cam. The process presents several challenges including parking on the bank while avoiding the slipway, getting the boat out of the water without capsizing or anyone slipping down the bank, carrying the boat around the lock without hitting the riggers on bollards, hedges or cyclists, and then getting down the steep stairs on the other side to put the boat back in the water.
For those willing to go to the effort though, there are rich rewards. The water is flat and calm, the river is a little wider and there are usually only one or two other eights around, if any. There’s enough space to do a 15-minute piece at rate 38, spin and do it again. On one particularly memorable day we made it all the way down to the next lock doing sprints. There’s also plenty of wildlife and countryside to look at when you stop for a quick drink.
So although carrying the boat over can be quite an effort, going over the lock is quite enjoyable. Or it was, until this term. This term the river over the lock is a lot less ‘Wind in the Willows’ and a lot more ‘Animals of Farthing Wood’.
The cause of all the trouble is a male swan with a nest on the bank a few hundred metres downstream of the lock. Normally nesting swans on the Cam present very few problems for rowers; punters upstream of Jesus Lock have had problems with a lineage of male swans named Asbo, Asboy and Asbaby, but with the exception of Asbo, who was moved as a result, none of these have really attacked rowers. The swan over the lock however is so dim-wittedly aggressive that one outing we decided to christen him Swanald Drumpf.
Even if the cox gives the nest plenty of space, on the way downstream Swanald will put himself in the way of the bows and snap at the nearest blade, then swim aggressively after the boat. This isn’t much of an issue, especially since we row much faster than he can swim. However, while the boat is out of sight, Swanald will lurk far downstream of the nest, waiting for the crew to come back. This inevitably means that a crew rowing upstream towards the lock will find themselves between Swanald and his nest, at which point he will take awkwardly to the wing, skim along the water after the boat and then attempt to land on the stern and attack our cox, James. On several occasions this term, he’s made contact with James, although luckily James has escaped each time without any lasting harm.
At first we thought perhaps Swanald was new to the nesting game, or short-sighted enough to mistake a shell for a really, really big swan. But according to coxes from the men’s side he has been terrorising boats for at least three years now, so we can only assume he’s just a twat.
Someone else who is no stranger to swan collisions is our bow-seat, Katharine, who is a fourth-year History and Philosophy of Science student. She will probably be submitting her final dissertation as you read this. With an ‘English rose’ complexion and the most incredible ringlets I’ve ever seen, Katharine is basically an English folk song come to life. This impression is only compounded by the fact that she plays the guitar, sings beautifully and glides around town in a butter-yellow mac. Last term, Katharine was in 7-seat in front of me, so I learned that underneath her sunny exterior she hides a wicked sense of humour and a steely determination.